I vividly remember the poetry, prose and pageantry of elementary and middle school. Like millions of other prepubescent children, I would — at the frequent command of my teachers — place my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. While I did not always comply with the level of solemnity for which the situation called, I performed the patriotic ritual without hesitation or reflection. To borrow from Shakespeare, the words flowed “trippingly (from) the tongue.”
The simple truth is that one of the core purposes of a public school education is to indoctrinate youth into forging fealty to their nation. I do not offer that observation snidely; it is what it is. Indeed, a public school education should encourage such bonds — regardless of the nation in question. The survival of any nation has always depended largely on the willingness of the young and able-bodied to be willing to die (and to kill) for it in war. Placing one’s hand over one’s heart — the organ that symbolizes our “life’s blood” — is a not-too-subtle inculcation into that ancient reality.
This explains why our military spends a chunk of its massive budget on advertising at sporting contests; they hope that thousands of prospective soldiers, sailors and airmen will watch and be inspired to enlist. The ubiquity of flyovers at major outdoor sporting events seems more appropriate for North Korea (where there is no separation between military and state) than for the civilian-governed United States.
But conversation should accompany recitation. Explanation should accompany indoctrination. This should be the case for all children, but it is especially important for Black children as they (hopefully) learn how America’s history of racial subjugation has shaped our traditions, including our patriotic ones. They need to understand that legitimate civic pride often mutates into jingoism, which in turn frequently metastasizes into white nationalism.
Consider the recent example of Gwen Berry. Several weeks ago, Ms. Berry successfully competed for a spot on the Olympic track and field team. (Having placed third in her event, she is now representing the United States in Tokyo.) During an awards ceremony at the Olympic trials, Berry very obviously objected to the playing of the national anthem as she and her teammates were on the awards stand. The response from much of white America was swift, vociferous and predictable.
To be clear, Berry’s discomfort wasn’t due to critical race theory. It wasn’t due to “the mainstream media.” It was due to the fact that she knows the history behind “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She knows that Francis Scott Key was a rabid racist whose views are explicitly reflected in the song’s third stanza. The anger that was directed at her should be redirected at the cause (i.e., racism) rather than the effect (i.e., her rejection of racism). There is not a single circumstance under which white Americans would celebrate a song that denigrates them, especially if it were written by an African American.
I empathize with Berry, even though I strongly believe that anyone who represents the U.S. in Olympic competition should respect the national anthem. John Carlos and Tommie Smith did so, even as they offered the “Black Power” sign in the 1968 Olympics. Jesse Owens, who in my opinion is the greatest U.S. Olympian in history, decided to compete for a nation that legally codified his second-class citizenship. He was a child of American apartheid. He suffered indignities that I cannot begin to imagine. Yet, he had agency. He struck an indelible blow against white “supremacy” by demonstrating Black athletic prowess to Germans — and to white Americans.
Given this nation’s history of racism, Black folks are arguably the most patriotic Americans. To use one crucially important measure of fealty, we are disproportionately represented in the military (as we are in several Olympic sports). Rather than focus on our kneeling down in athletic contests, those who deny American apartheid should focus on our willingness to lay down our lives in military ones.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.